In Hungarian, the word 'kert' means 'garden.' In Budapest, kerts (or 'kertok,' when pluralized correctly) are outdoor bars, which usually also stretch indoors through an abandoned building and almost always include some sort of performance space. These are not the beer gardens of Austria, with planted rows of picnic table and constant, uniform watering. These are overgrown and wild, like ivy that's overtaken a fence rusted closed a long time ago. It's that bed of wildflowers in someone's backyard, high purples and yellows, that you wish your mother had planted. When you discover that it's more a case of the owner not tending to their land than tending to it, you skip around just the same wearing a crown of dandelions.Szimpla Kert ('Simple Garden') began the garden/ruin bar trend almost a decade ago and is one of the only spaces open all year and filled with perennials. Counteracting a movement to fill Budapest with sleek, trendy nightlife spots, they went organic. The city is loaded with old buildings, a lot of which are abandoned or not livable. Szimpla moved on into one and filled its multiple floors like squatters with a keen curatorial eye. A compost of odds and ends was laid down in the courtyard, an old pommel horse and gutted jeep amongst other things, and a garden quickly grew. More people began to do the same.
Now, each year, kerts pop up in new places. Most do not stay in one place for more than a season - which may or may not have more to do with licensing than with the hide-and-seek aspect. Some people wait to see a posted list of kert locations at the beginning of the season and others stay loyal to owners, following them wherever they move whether publicized or not. There's a large emphasis placed on art and music and many locations host concerts, film festivals and parties that run well into the night. They're just as much performance venues as they are bars or cafes and some cross the line into nightclub. This is Europe, after all.
We thought we may be a little too uncool for a kert, too young or too old or too foreign. However, the 'come as you are' attitude that we encountered all around this fantastic city extended to the gardens. There was no prescribed fashion, lifestyle or drink choice. People sat alone with a book, in couples with wine and beer, tea, coffee or nothing at all. When we visited Szimpla before dinner one night, it was fairly easy to find a spot in a corner to Skype my father for his birthday. Three men in suits stood at the bar and a group of teenagers huddled around a hookah on a busted spring of a couch. It's the only place I've ever been where the smell of cherry tobacco and hamburgers mixed in the air.
At night, Szimpla is pretty crowded - and we fell in love with this smaller kert close to home, in the VIII district, called Gondozó. We never went inside, where there is a larger bar and a stage, content to sit on the small courtyard under a single strand of Christmas lights. There was a scrap of a sign outside the unused house its located in. It's Gondozo's first year and, quite possibly, the only summer it will be here.We wondered if the mural will be painted over by the next inhabitants or if it will chip away for years, the courtyard remaining empty. Vibrancy and decay seem to mix so well in Budapest that the idea that a space could transition seamlessly from abandoned to popularized and back again in the course of year is unsurprising - and charming.
This kert, the first we visited, felt more familiar. A lot like Brooklyn. A curt (ha!) woman served us our drinks and then went back to sit with her friends. One of the many rainstorms during our time in Budapest had just stopped as quickly as it had started. We sat on our raincoats under a beer branded umbrella and sniffed the greasy air wafting from a grill in the corner. It's called Mixart and, apparently, hosts some of the longest garden parties- though, they are said to be less-than-raucous affairs.
Its bar had prayer flags hung across the top and a chalkboard spelled out the daily specials, which included hot dogs and tofu curry. An English child ran around while three dreadlocked 20somethings drank coffee and a pair of women in twin sets sipped beers. Then, there was us - happy to be outside in this moment of dry weather. Happy that we were in a city that let you feel like you had a backyard to lounge around in. Each kert felt like it belonged to nobody and everybody at the same, which made us feel - for that moment - that it also belonged to us.